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“Intrusions of Grace: Musings at a Way Station” Elizabeth Davey

15 January 2019

Haddon Willmer became friends with Elizabeth Davey (pictured below) in the years she was working for her doctorate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, resulting in her book, A Persevering Witness: the poetry of Margaret Avison (Pickwick, 2016). Avison was a Canadian Christian whose often teasing mysterious poetry is there for us to read as Christian witness, as modelled in John’s Gospel, with its two directions, ‘Come and See’ and ‘Go and Tell’.

On her retirement from Tyndale University, Toronto, Elizabeth gave the Convocation address. Here it is. Elizabeth says: I would be curious to interact with anyone who has an interest in the literature that I love. 

Today is my 42nd commencement here at Tyndale. I think I have a better sense of your feelings and thoughts—more empathy–than I ever have.  I expect you have a myriad of emotions—celebration, relief, nostalgia, fear of what lies ahead. Some of you are buoyant, excited, even impatient, because the way seems clear; others are not so sure – maybe a little reluctant to leave . . .

I, like you, am not going back to my office after this ceremony to look at books and syllabi, planning for next year’s courses or to exchange ideas with colleagues for some administrative issue to solve.  I, too, am packing up my belongings to head to the next part of my journey—in newness and uncertainty.  I need the same kind of assurances, advice, and motivation for the unknown as you do.

When we talk about a journey to describe our lives we turn time into a spatial metaphor to heighten the significance of unfolding events.  At the same time, the metaphor is so common we cease to notice its significance—whether it be Homer’s Odysseus, Virgil’s Aeneas, Dante’s own namesake—or our own.

John Bunyan’s 17th century classic The Pilgrim’s Progress is an adventure story of the pilgrim from the City of Destruction who exclaims, “What must I do to be saved?” and responds to the admonition to “flee,” starting on the straight and narrow path towards a new home—the Celestial City. We follow his journey through the Wicket Gate, to the Cross, through Vanity Fair, down the Valley of Humiliation, and on to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, into Doubting Castle.  We appreciate his companions Faithful and Hopeful. And of course, the allegory pushes us to make intimate connection with our own lives. 

One place in The Pilgrim’s Progress we are tempted to gloss over is Christian’s stopover at The Palace Beautiful. In this Way Station, he meets, in Bunyan’s quaint and charming language, four “beautiful damsels”: “Discretion, Prudence, Piety, and Charity” who ply him with questions about his journey and in return offer him wise counsel and equipment for the next part of his journey. 

These four “damsels” catch my attention because, first of all, they are women in a tale devoid of positive female figures.  And they are functioning in the story as teachers—mentors to the traveller. I make the connection between Paul “teaching” Timothy in his farewell letter and these lovely ladies, as I draw on several women writers who have inspired me and spur me on my pilgrimage—even into the yet unknown.

From prison, the great apostle Paul writes to Timothy that his “time of departure” has come. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. . .”  There is urgency to his words: He calls his journey a race. And he has wisdom to impart to his timid protégé: 

            Do the following, Timothy:

            Rekindle the gift of God that is within you

            Guard the good treasure entrusted to you . . . .

            Because: God saved us and called us with a holy calling

            and because: I know the one in whom I have put my trust. . .

Timothy, “You guard the good treasure entrusted to you. . .  and God will do for you as he has for me–guard “until that day” what we have entrusted to him!”

These last words of St. Paul warm our hearts and steady nervous feet as we stand in the doorway, ready to leave this Way Station. 

A delicate rendition of Paul’s sentiments is reframed in an excerpt of a poem that is a prayer by the Canadian poet Margaret Avison (right):

Unclasp my heart

from my own cramped story

to new, in-threading light, a start

Towards searching out your glory.  

 The poet beautifully identifies the components of the master plan for the journey:  “Unclasp my heart”:  release me from my own confining and limiting—cramped—story . . . and send me out: start my searching out  God’s glory . . . however elusive the idea seems to be.           

The retreat leader and Anglo-Catholic writer in early 20th century England, Evelyn Underhill, challenges us to embrace what she calls “the spiritual life.”

She sounds surprisingly contemporary when she asserts, We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do, forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in the fundamental verb, to Be.

Craving, clutching, and fussing—don’t you love her colourful descriptions of our inner state—craving, clutching, and fussing, at times on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual—even on the religious—plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest,” she concludes.

(1) Her antidote and my first principle for your and my success in the days and months and years ahead, is to be intentional in cultivating our inner lives: We need to attend to two worlds! We have a double obligation to the seen and the unseen world. . . while we find our jobs, build our careers, make our living, establish our homes, make new friends, settle into our churches, seek out entertainment and recreation.

What else do we do, and want, and expect to have?  How do we nourish our souls? How do we rekindle the gift of God in us? How do we guard the good treasure entrusted to us? What will that intentionality look like? Perhaps this injunction is our new assignment with papers and projects completed!

(2) Second, sometimes we have a misplaced inferiority complex, seeing our faith experience as limiting our accomplishments in the world.  We can feel overwhelmed, not unlike Timothy who Paul admonishes, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and of self-discipline.”

A small Christian university is especially vulnerable as we try to compete with larger academic players.  Individually and collectively we will be tempted to cowardice and fear.

Flannery O’Connor, the southern American Catholic writer of provocative and jarring short stories is commended by her critic Robert Ellsberg for her capacity to see the world in the light of faith—my second recommendation for our future success:  As she is wont to do, O’Connor flips our expectations of reality.

The writer herself wrote in a letter to a friend that “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox         Christian and a novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.”

Her perspective transformed her art into compelling stories that have intrigued readers for decades.

How might that look for each of us to see the world—our fragile and faltering world around us— in the light of faith? A quick perusal of news on the internet each morning is sometimes enough to make us quake with fear and immobilize our efforts to bring light and hope in our own local spheres of influence.  How do we people of faith maintain perspective and act accordingly? 

Further, what might it look like for each of us to see our own world—our equally fragile and faltering world inside of us—in the light of faith? I have on my computer a recent video of my 3-year old grandson sitting on the floor of our church nursery beside one of our college students. Frankie is singing with enthusiasm, “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty. There’s nothing that he cannot do!” Know the song?  The clincher for me is at the very end with all the hand motions: “There’s nothing that he cannot do—FOR YOU!” Out of the mouth of babes, as we say, comes our message of hope.

Not only does the Christian novelist live in a larger universe.  So does the Christian teacher in our public schools.  So does the Christian nurse in our hospitals; the Christian social worker among broken people. So does the Christian businessman or woman, so does the Christian Starbucks barista! . . . We bring Jesus with us wherever we go!

Let me tell you of my encounter with a former student Sokreaksa Himm.  At the beginning of a Literature and Composition class in 1990, I asked my students to introduce themselves by writing a story of some “spiritual experience” that impacted their lives.  A polite Asian student in somewhat hesitant English came up to me and said he did not think he could do that.  I encouraged him to try to think of something . . .  A challenge of wills I thought.  I was unprepared for the essay I received—it was about lying under a pile of dead bodies and hearing a bird from a tree as if a signal of direction. 

I called him into my office to ask him about this painful image, and he assured me it was true.  I listened in horror as he told me the details of his story. You see, Reaksa was a member of a large family in Siemreap City, Cambodia when the country fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.  Forced to join the exodus to the jungle villages, the whole family was marched to a large grave and killed—hacked to death—one by one.  Somehow, he survived, wounded, but covered by the bodies of his family members. In time, he escaped the killing fields and fled to a refugee camp in Thailand.  Eventually he made his way to Canada and to Tyndale and to my English class.  I sat in my office across from him and just wept with him. What more could I do? Help him with his English? His writing? Offer one safe place among many he would need where he could unburden himself of his pain?

But there is a sequel to his story that connects with this idea of seeing the world with the eyes of faith. After Tyndale and subsequent education here in Canada and the States, he felt called to return to Cambodia, now with a wife and children. (You can read about him under our distinguished alumni award, 2010). He wanted to have a ministry to his own people who had suffered so much and needed to hear the Gospel. But first, he had one passion—after many years of therapy and healing—he wanted to meet the people who had murdered his family and offer forgiveness. In his book After the Heavy Rain one can see a picture of him standing between two men who accepted his miraculous embrace!  All the negotiations that must have taken place for that détente. But he believed it was necessary and possible.

Most of us have not gone through that kind of horror, but we too have our own experiences that require eyes of faith.  In a larger context, our institutions—our own school here—need people who see the world in the light of faith, and act accordingly.

I turn to my last—and perhaps hardest principle to apply:

(3) to be attuned to almost imperceptible intrusions of grace—a phrase coined by Flannery O’Connor.

 When we hear the word “grace,” I think we often get a little sentimental.  It’s a lovely word and we associate it with some of our favourite hymns and worship songs.  As people of faith we know that we been given grace and journey in the light of that reality. 

Again, I turn to this blunt and unsentimental author who makes startling assertions stirring us to some vigorous thinking and re-thinking:

She remarks that conversion is “a kind of blasting, annihilating light, a light that will last a life time. . . At the same time, conversion is an evolving process—a matter of “continually turning toward God and away from your own egocentricity.”  Here is the nature of our journey: we will be pressed by the One who bled and died for us with almost imperceptible intrusions of grace.

We think of the apostle Paul again. We forget he was a very good man, a highly educated and religious man—who thought he was doing the right thing in defending his Jewish faith against what he saw was the imposter teaching of The Way.  His Damascus conversion—an intrusion of grace—was all that O’Connor identifies—that annihilating and blasting light.” Now at the end of his journey, he is saying with deep passion and humility: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

Those words must come from many additional stabs of grace—“thorns in the flesh,” disappointments, betrayals, judgement, pain and suffering he could not have imagined.

Are we surprised, with O’Connor’s observation that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful?”  And yet we know we need grace—God’s grace.

Consider one more journey story, this time from the land of fairy tales, which C.S. Lewis maintained, helps break the spell of modern enchantment:  Remember the childhood story, one of the Narnia Chronicles, The Horse and His Boy about the boy who does not know he is really a prince?

The boy Shasta living with a poor fisherman among the Calormenes, runs away towards Narnia with two talking horses and a girl. Their journey is filled with peculiar adventure, difficulties, and trauma. At one point the storyteller notes, “Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no   strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one!”

Do you remember the climactic moment in the book when Shasta meets Aslan, the Great Lion, who tells him that he had orchestrated each of those difficult points in their journey? Aslan had directed the fisherman to rescue Shasta as a baby from a boat. Aslan was the seeming two lions that had directed the two groups together; Aslan had been the cat at the Tombs keeping Shasta company when he was separated from the others. Aslan had chased the group when they needed to make better time to warn the Narnian kingdom from danger of invasion, and now he was walking beside Shasta in the fog, comforting and protecting him going through the mountain pass. All these hard experiences were preparing him for his true identity and role as a prince in the borderland of Narnia.

As adults revisiting the story, we know the power of retrospection: As we look back on our lives we can see how difficult and painful times can be hinge events to something transformational in our lives. Those are intrusions of grace, often almost imperceptible—markers of God’s particular care. He is preparing us to be a prince or princess in his kingdom!

So there we have wisdom from three remarkable women, Margaret Avison, Evelyn Underhill and Flannery O’Connor, reinforcing Paul’s instructions to Timothy, and sending us on our way:  

  • Be intentional in cultivating our inner life
  • See the world with the eyes of faith
  • Be attuned to almost imperceptible intrusions of grace

 In closing, I turn to one more woman, reaching back into the past into the late fourteenth century . . . Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, living alone in a cell attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich.  Any journey she undertook was internal!  Her book The Revelations of Divine Love was the first book to be written by a woman in English. 

Her words can ring in our ears as we leave this Way Station:

He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought, ‘What can this be?’ And answer came, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, ‘It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.’ And all things have being through the love of God.

 In this little thing I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God looks after it.

 What is he indeed that is maker and lover and keeper? I cannot find words to tell. For until I am one with him I can never have true rest nor peace. I can never know it until I am held so close to him that there is nothing in between.

In light of Julian’s symbol of the hazelnut’s assurances, I embrace King Tirian’s words from Lewis’s The Last Battle, “Let’s take the adventure Aslan has for us.” We know, of course, who Aslan is in our world!

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